The review of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – a comparative perspective

The UK’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) changes the provisions for the calling of early parliamentary elections. It limits the discretion of the incumbent government by giving parliament the statutory power to call an early election.

It was put in place in 2011 and the two following elections were held according to its provisions. But it was circumvented in December 2019, when parliament called an early election using the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019. Moreover, both the Conservative and Labour parties are committed to repealing the FTPA. Is the FTPA problematic? Does it need to be repealed? Or could it be amended? And, if so, how?

These are questions that Petra Schleiter, Professor of Comparative Politics, was exploring in the framework of her project 'Informing the Review of the UK Fixed Term Parliaments Act with Comparative Evidence'; the pilot for a new Research and Public Policy Partnership Scheme, launched in January 2020 by the University of Oxford.

Working with House of Commons and House of Lords Committees, Petra has been providing comparative evidence about the experience of comparable European and Westminster democracies to inform a dialogue in the UK Parliament, between interested MPs and Peers, and other parliamentary researchers. She is drawing on her expertise in comparative politics to ensure that vital evidence helps to shape and strengthen the review.

During the first stage of the project, she has been working with UK parliamentary committees, including the House of Lords Constitution Committee and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, giving evidence to their inquiries into the review of the FTPA. By working in partnership with the UK Parliament, Petra is adding a comparative evidence basis to the discussion of questions central to the Review such as:

  • how election-calling rules affect the scope for discretionary action by the executive;
  • how they interact with confidence procedures and the strength of parliamentary checks;
  • what impact they have on the probability of legislative gridlock; and
  • under which conditions early elections may be desirable.

The partnership aims to ensure that all involved are aware of the comparative evidence and that they feel confident to draw on this as they shape the terms of reference for the Review and embark on it.

Reflecting on her partnership project, Petra said, 'Working with policy makers in parliament has been very interesting because, in providing comparative evidence, I am guided by the practical concerns and questions to which politicians are actually asking, as they prepare for the review of the FTPA.'

'I think the project is very timely,' added Richard Kelly of the House of Commons Library. 'There are a lot of issues that a review of the FTPA could cover. For instance, it would be helpful to have comparative information on the operation of early election provisions in countries that have fixed-term parliaments.'

The Research and Public Policy Partnership Scheme’s second call, in association with the UK Civil Service Policy Profession, launches on Monday 22 June 2020. This call will support partnerships between researchers at Oxford and policymakers, in or outside the UK, that enable partners to improve public policy responses to COVID-19 – to mitigate impact, support recovery, or both – through sharing of evidence, experience, and expertise. For more information and how to apply, see Funding opportunities page.